Private school made me a socialist
I had no interest in turning into an ‘Old Boy’
Bedford School is hidden behind hedges and rows of three-storey-high buildings: you could drive down the street it’s on and easily miss it. But behind these hedges and brick buildings lurks the strange world of a private all-boys boarding-school.
The “all-boys” part is quite key. I like to think of it as a bizarre social experiment. Shove some angsty, pubescent boys into an enclosed location, force them to attend school on Saturday, coerce them into wearing suits, separate them from the other half of the human race, and see what happens.
At the end of the experiment, the boy leaves, aged 18, as an “Old Boy”: intelligent, charming, graceful, ambitious, ready to take on the world. What the prospectus forgets to tell you is that you’ll also become an arrogant thunder-twat whose only social interaction upon leaving school is with upper-middle-class men who happen to be knowledgeable on the complexities and nuances of Latin sentence structure.
On entering the Upper School segment of Bedford School, one is dropped into a house.
There are six houses (Ashburnham, Bromham, Crescent, Paulo Pontine, St Cuthbert’s and St Peter’s) who compete for the House Cup. Each house has a Day House and a Boarding House. In each Day House is a common room.
Bizarrely, there was a kind of pathetic quasi-class-divide amongst the houses: some common rooms had better facilities than others, thus the rivalry in part wasn’t necessarily about the House Cup per se but about the fact that Paulo Pontine had a Nintendo Wii in their common room whilst St Peter’s had a broken pool table.
New boys were subjected to initiation tests – not sanctioned by the school – that were carried out by Sixth Form boys. One could easily escape these, as I did, simply by not going into the Day House at lunchtime, or indeed, at all.
Initiation tests would vary: boys shoved into lockers for a certain period of time, boys forced to stand on top of pool-tables and recite the school hymn (which was, of course, in fucking Latin) while various objects – including snooker-balls – were thrown at them. A friend of mine’s initiation test simply involved him being “kidnapped” upstairs to the Sixth Form sitting-room. What he endured still remains a mystery to this day.
Stories spread around involving the most sadistic “tasks”, of which the most memorable involved one boy having to insert an electronic toothbrush – his own electronic toothbrush might I add – up his own arse. Whether the initiation test involved him actually having to turn it on remains, thankfully, unknown.
Of course, these events – in and of themselves – are not political in the strict sense of the term, nor did they engage me directly with socialist ideas. But at that time, merely by witnessing them, I succumbed to a form of anti-authoritarianism, a rather crude form of anti-authoritarianism no doubt. But it was a starting point of sorts.
Years later, I read Orwell’s excellent essay on his school days, Such, Such Were the Joys, and noticed similarities between my experience and his. In it he states the characteristics of what you might wish to term the “ideal pupil”:
But all the different kinds of virtue seemed to be mysteriously interconnected and to belong to much the same people. It was not only money that mattered […] something called ‘guts’ or ‘character’, which in reality meant the power to impose your will on others.
Initiations showed “character”. The initiator demonstrated his ability to impose his will on others, and the initiatee – merely by his desire to become “initiated” – demonstrated that he held some perverse inner strength characterised by physical and psychological endurance. Put more simply: the initiator could feel proud about his display of dominance, and the intiatee could feel proud that he survived – and didn’t break down – during his torment.
Initiation tests thus reveal a lesson about how power can be exerted by tricking the powerless into believing that degrading themselves somehow betters them as people, and that one must always resist subjugation in any form. Of course, this culture of arrogance and cult of ‘character’ was at its high point when it came to issues of class and money.
There were murmurs, near-myths, about people who went to state schools and what “they” were like: the “lower orders”, or the most commonly-used term “chavs”. I knew many boys who wouldn’t reveal that they came from a working-class background (they got in because of a bursary). These boys didn’t reveal their working-class roots out of fear of being mocked.
So pathetic was this bizarre money-obsessed competition that Bedford Modern School pupils (Beford Modern being a cheaper private school) were also referred to as “chavs”. I fell folly to this insipid attitude towards class. I had a vulgar sense of arrogance, entitlement and superiority purely because of what school I intended. After being exposed to such beliefs for a while, I ended up completely rejecting them.
In a sense, these past attitudes aid my socialism. Most people can only speculate on the psychology of certain individuals in the upper-middle-class. I was a lower-middle class boy who spent years of my life with them.
I have spoken to them, drank with them, eaten food with them, taken classes with them, slept in the same room as them. I know how they think and I know what they feel. I know what motivates and causes certain attitudes about class because I have sincerely held such beliefs.
Such beliefs weren’t just held by pupils but were also held by various teachers, and the institution itself provided a framework for these beliefs to feed off one another in a continuous loop.
I also distinctly remember a science teacher giving us long monologues about how if we didn’t hand in an insignificant piece of homework, the logical conclusion would be us “working at McDonalds” or “stacking shelves at Tesco”. The reaction was one of fear and mocking derision: simultaneously a fear of becoming like the “lower-orders” while also giggling at the very existence of a class lower than ourselves.
The sense of arrogance was easily instilled merely by the grounds and facilities of the school itself, they provided something you, as Bedford School boy, could brag about. The giant rugby, cricket and football pitches, the gym, the swimming pool, the theatre, the squash courts, the fives courts, the observatory, the chapel, the purpose-built music-facilities, and so on.
The history of the school itself was embellished almost everywhere: the frequent name-dropping of ex-alumi (England cricketer, Alastair Cook; former leader of the Lib Dems, Paddy Ashdown), the fact that certain boys’ fathers (and fathers’ fathers, etc) also attended the school, the giant golden-framed paintings of every headmaster in The Great Hall. All of this formed a historical cult-of-personality in itself.
Sometimes I wonder how ex-classmates, specifically the snobbiest ones, would react if they not only found out that I was a socialist, but that the institution which preserved their beliefs, unintentionally made me reject everything it stood for.
Driven away from the most vulgar classism, authority-respecting, money-obsessiveness, I became someone who finally managed to freely think and explore ideas never mentioned in class: those of Marx, Sartre, Žižek, and Chomsky.
Many will call me a hypocrite, having this notion that my education is in conflict with my political beliefs. I will simply say that my education was one of the many factors which helped to construct my political views – and that private school made me a socialist.